It was an incredible sight to see Manchester United go up 3-nil in the 1st half at the Etihad Stadium, especially against a Manchester City side that came to Old Trafford three months ago and left with a 6-1 victory scalp. Perhaps the more incredible sight though was seeing the legendary Paul Scholes come on during the 59th minute as a substitute -- it was only an hour prior to the match when it was announced that Scholesy had come out of retirement and would go straight to the bench for the FA Cup derby. As for his reason to come back, it sounds as if it was simply for the love of the game:
"I’ve been pretty clear since I stopped playing that I miss it. I’m delighted the manager feels I can still make a contribution to the team and I’m looking forward to playing my part in trying to bring more success to this great club."
Manager Sir Alex Ferguson appears delighted by Scholes' return as well:
"It’s fantastic that Paul has made this decision. It’s always sad to see great players end their careers, but especially so when they do it early.But he has kept himself in great shape and I always felt that he had another season in him. It’s terrific to have him back."
What role will the 37-year-old midfield maestro play this season for the only club he's ever known? There's been a gradual evolution to the role that Scholes has played at United in the past decade or so. During the past week, I was watching footage of United's 3-0 defeat of Millwall during the 2004 FA Cup final -- the last time United won the competition. At that time, Scholes played a role in attack that was in support of lead striker Ruud van Nilstelrooy -- he was the creative force in attack through the center and in this particular match, he was complimented well by having Roy Keane providing steel and Darren Fletcher providing energy in the center of the park. In the latter stages of his career, Scholes' positioning on the pitch had receded as he sat in front of his defense as a deep-lying playmaker, but his influence certainly didn't as he still found ways to command the midfield zone.
While it is exciting to see the return of the legend, expectations should probably be reserved. Of course, that is not to say that Scholes will not or cannot have an impact. His appearance yesterday perhaps hinted strongly as to what his role will be this season -- when United needed to kill off the match and play keep-ball from a 10-man City side, it was Scholes and Michael Carrick that dictated the match as deep-lying double pivots. While Scholes did give the ball away in the lead-up to City's second goal, it was one of only two misplaced passes during his 73 pass attempts. As Opta's Twitter personality Opta Joe pointed out after the match, Scholes incredibly completed 71 passes at a 97% completion rate during the 33 minutes he was on the pitch -- this was more passes completed than any City player. 48 of those passes were played forward so it wasn't as if he was simply playing square passes.
Going forward, Fergie will likely field lineups that pairs a 'passer' and a 'runner' in central-midfield duos. Scholes most certainly fits in the mold of a 'passer' and his role going forward is likely as a deep-lying distribution-based midfielder. Last season, this was the role he played and during the season's early-going -- perhaps prior to when he claimed that his legs had finally gone -- he was in great form and still dictating matches in this role. Scholes finished the Premier League season with an outstanding 90.2% success rate with his passes (good for 1st in the league), 61.7 passes per game (6th), and 8.4 successful long balls per game (1st amongst outfield players). While possession and passing rates can be misused statistics, Scholes' numbers provide tactical evidence of his importance when United need to play keep-ball late in matches in order to kill off matches.
The long-ball statistic is particularly important to United because so much of their attacking creativity comes from their wingers -- a unit that needs continual supply from their central-midfielders. Whether this is a simple pass swung laterally to feet or a ball lofted over the top into space for a speedy winger to run onto, it's a vital process to the attacking success of United. The opposition cannot simply sit back and allow Scholes to dangerously spray balls around the pitch. If they do, he likely still possesses the quality to break them down. If they come forward to close him down, this creates space in attack between the lines for players like Wayne Rooney to wreak havoc. Perhaps Scholes' legs have gone, but that doesn't mean that he can't similarly effect matches the way Andrea Pirlo does this season for Juventus as the architect for his side.
United's issues in central-midfield certainly runs deeper than what a 37-year-old legend could solve. However, the hope with Scholes is likely to provide a stop-gap for now and perhaps United addresses their needs during the summer -- or maybe the maestro simply provides cover or compliments any possible purchases during the current January transfer window. The likes of Carrick, Anderson, Ryan Giggs, and Tom Cleverley will still be the preferred players to establish themselves as first-choice -- and maybe players like Ando, Giggs, and Cleverley can prove to be decent compliments as 'runners' to Scholes' 'passer' role when the legend is called upon to start matches. And Scholes definitely can play a tactical role in a three-man midfield still if Fergie reverts to this tactic again for United's remaining 'big matches' -- particularly away ties. It's also very possible -- and perhaps ideal if things goes well -- that Scholes simply plays the under-appreciated role of coming on late as he did today to kill off matches with Carrick.
A subtle and humble role for the final chapter of Scholesy's career -- what could be more fitting?